Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back in the Valley of Shadows

No, I am not Job but I think we are related.

Last week my erudite, generous, beyond energetic, gentle uncle decided that he had nothing to offer the world and so he left us. He was a Princeton man, did a Fulbright in Rome, had a PhD, loved opera, was interested in church history and theology, was brilliant on Shakespeare, drove people around who couldn't drive themselves, and was kinder to my children than you can imagine. He was a teacher in profession and in calling. He was steadfast in his support of me personally and professionally. And now he is gone and for all the wrong reasons.

His death came one year and four days after my aunt (no relation to him) took her own life.

His death is like an earthquake in our family. In just a few moments everything looks different; there is no stability, and three generations of us no longer feel safe. There is no "getting used to" suicide. There is no "better suicide" than another. It is all a nightmare, but each a different nightmare than the other.

In the years since I have had this blog, my parents have fought cancer and a coma, my last two grandmothers died, even my dogs died. I have tried to understand my own health problems (considerable to the average healthy person, absolutely nothing in light of this week) that limit my ability to live as I would like. I have waited for test results with my friend Lizard Eater and a buddy Undertaker. I now pray for another one of my hero buddies as she enters into another fight against her own cancer.

Through it all my goal has been to be honest and open about grief and loss. I wanted to pull back the veil on some parts of death and dying so it was less terrifying for people. I have shared my worldview that not only is life still funny when you pay attention to death, sometimes it is funnier. My thought has always been: maybe if we talk about it, it will help.

But I am run down to the ground on this one.

My uncle left me a package. It included a long letter and a bag of items. The letter was his instructions for his funeral, his asking for me to perform it, and some suggestions for what I might include. The package included some of the items he mentioned in the letter - photos and notes mostly.

It would appear that in all my comfort concerning death, all of my talk about pre-planning, all of my suggestions for finding meaning at the end of life... my uncle had listened very carefully. Too carefully and I am left with the realization that I never said the most important things.

I never said: if you are physically healthy but wanting to die, something is very wrong. Yell for help, and when help does not arrive start sprinting for help, and when you can't find it scream for directions.

I never said: all the pre-planning in the world is not helpful when you hand it over to your own brothers, your own niece, your dear friends after your unexpected and fully intentional death.

I never said: LIVE! LIVE! LIVE! If life has lost its siren call to survival before anything threatens your physical well-being, treat your mind like a body with cancer and fight for life.

I know that this was his struggle not mine. I know that his choices were set in granite a long time ago. I know because he said so in what he left behind. I know that my words could not have changed his mind.

But my heart does not believe as I look over the meticulous plans done to the very letter of how I have taught people for a decade to plan. He did everything I asked. I just wish I had asked him to live.

So I post again in the face of very personal and deep pain because every time I come out as a survivor of suicide loss, I meet more people who have walked this road with no more ease than I. I share my selfish feelings that resist the lessons of my psychological training because that's just how I feel. It may not be "right" but it is true. Our feelings rarely behave in times of grief and I am not going to compound the pain by shaming myself for how I feel.

If I want to dream that something could have made him save himself, who would be so cruel to take that little dream away from me? I don't plan to build any structures on that foundation and it isn't hurting him, that's for sure.

And I share, most of all, because there has been a stunned silence in the wake of my uncle's death. "How can one family have so much loss?" "What do you say in the face of compounded suffering?"

I don't know. Unlike Job, I don't even have a theory. But like Job, I feel judged, blamed, avoided, pitied, feared, misunderstood, fussy and really damn weary.

As for my family, we are all putting one foot in front of the other, getting through each day as best we can, trying to keep talking to each other gently but honestly. We are hugging the children a little too tightly and saying "I love you" more. We are fussing over stupid stuff and apologizing. We don't know what we had for dinner any day since last Wednesday. Our cell phone minutes are all used up. We don't sleep well.

Day after day we do this because there is only one road through grief and it is THROUGH it. Not over, under, or around it. The only way out is through. We aren't courageous, just reasonable.

And we will all get up tomorrow and see what that day brings. Some days we cry. Some days we are angry. Some days we are sick to our stomachs. But one day it will be better than this. So we keep walking through it all toward that inevitable auspicious dawn.

You'd do the same. That was always the lesson of Job to me: you'd do the same.


ms. kitty said...

Oh my dear Alane, I am so sorry to learn about your dear uncle. I am so sorry. Sorry for his pain and sorry for yours. I wish there was more I could do, but know that I'm hurting with you.

Christine said...

I am so sorry for your loss. I hope that your words are read by someone who really needs to read them!

Gary said...

I didn't know your uncle well, but he always seemed happy and content. I don't know what to say except this is another great loss for you and I'm so sorry. You are a strong woman and you'll get through this.

Amy said...

There is nothing I can say to your family that you aren't already saying to each other. But I've also been through it, so I want to offer my heartsoreness to you.

When you write, "I just wish I had asked him to live," I want to cry "You did!" I don't know you and I didn't witness any of your time together, but I know that when he was kind to your children, you smiled at him. At the end of a visit, you hugged him and said "I'm so glad you came over." You thanked him when he gave you support. He must have had so much evidence that he was loved and good. Despair's evil is that it makes its sufferer unable to perceive it.

What a terrible loss for you and the world. I'm sorry.

Ira C said...

“What I just experienced cannot have been real; I must have dozed off and dreamed this episode while sitting here in this warm car.” That was my own inner voice assimilating. A wonderful, soul enhancing, UU minister had just conducted a service dedicated to the recently departed. I had some serious misgivings about attending a service with this theme having lost two older daughters in the years 2004 and 2005. And yet, each and every previous encounter with this gifted spirit guide indicated that a service with the potential for triggering a round of depression might well result in just the opposite. And so it did; somber; but serene, peaceful, and sustaining beyond words. It would not be an exaggeration to say I approached the second such service with the zeal of a convert!

It is a sad irony that a portion of your expertise in the field of death and dying has been acquired from hands-on experience involving members of your own family.

“I know that this was his struggle not mine. I know that his choices were set in granite a long time ago------.” This is a hard truth to accept but truth it is. Unfortunately, exceptionally gifted, intelligent, and valuable, individuals both to family and to society who somehow become hard-wired toward a self destructive ending occurs all too frequently. I hope with all my heart that your initial assessment that this tragic event was unpreventable—as it surely was-- has become a solid conclusion with the passing days.

“There is no one who says ‘live’ any louder than you do.” I love that phrase posted by one of your thousands of dedicated friends. You not only tell everyone to live; your very essence shouts LIVE!


Montana said...

Alane, my heart is breaking for you. Know there are people out here who hurt with you.